Melody Maker, November 5th 1983
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© 1983 Melody Maker / LYNDEN BARBER
THIS IS NOT A ROTTEN INTERVIEW
LYNDEN BARBER hacks it out with JOHN ROTTEN at last week's unruly press conference and finds out that J.R. is as sharp as ever. Rotten pics: TOM SHEEHAN.
This is a story of Lydon, né Rotten, recently absent but not forgotten ... so one might conclude from the teeming millions of Grub Street hacks, pop mag pundits, gossip columnists, rank sensationalists, snappers galore and assorted scribbling objects who turned up to witness the scrawny carrot make a grand appearance at the Royal Lancaster Hotel near Bayswater last Wednesday.
Looking at the board in the foyer, it seemed that Rotten had lost none of his old sense of humour – 'McLaren, Dick' was supposedly booked into one of the adjoining suites, and if hardly hilarious, it at least added to the hope that these proceedings would be as stripped of pomposity as it's possible to get.
What a wag. Holding court like some cheeky princeling brat landed bum-wise on the throne due to some untimely death amongst the royals. The suite was, of course, expansive and, no doubt, expensive.
Hacks dutifully nibbled at the cocktail snacks and guzzled whatever booze could be tempted out of the bottles of the servants and slaves on hand, the paparazzi bristled with lenses and aluminium flight cases, while Rotten looked like he was about to greatly enjoy whatever it was he had in mind for us. Which turned out to be nothing especially astonishing, but, of course, often splendidly entertaining.
The conference was to serve a dual function: to announce the return of Public Image Ltd. ("Me", as he put it), and the British release of the film 'Order Of Death', in which Rotten makes his acting debut opposite Harvey Keitel.
Directed by Roberto Faenza, an Italian little known in this country, the film concerns the intrigue that develops between a police lieutenant and Rotten's Leo Smith, described in the synopsis as a "pale asexual freak" who is "devoured by an overwhelming guilt complex". The cop is keeping a swish apartment that he bought secretly with crooked drug money. Smith's arrival on the scene adds to the man's paranoia, and from there apparently things start to happen. I say apparently, because no one seemed to have seen the film, including yours truly (treat yourself, Lynden: check out this week's 'Outer Limits' page), which probably accounted for the absence of any kind of critical comments concerning Rotten's performance from the assorted globules of hackdom coagulating in the seats.
Or maybe they were just too afraid of pushing their luck too far in front of a man (well, just – Rotten still physically looks like he's barely out of adolescence) who still displays a tongue that can make a monkey out of anyone it pleases in the space that it takes most people to clasp their hands together for mercy.
Interestingly, even when playing the punk role on Wednesday, which he can only really ever eschew at the price of public apathy and press indifference, Rotten was never outrageously rude or crudely insulting. Perhaps it's this that gives him his mantle of charisma. It's possible to walk away from an event such as this feeling that he's put every single person in their place (and that's down, that's really down!), yet on reflection it's difficult to figure out how he actually did it.
Of course he snarled, he performed, and like businessmen in bondage, most of us inwardly moaned with pleasure at the humiliation of it all. As long as this was kept within the bounds of a game then it was acceptable, but nobody seemed to like the prospect of a real horsewhipping.
I'd planned to ask him why the PIL 'Live In Tokyo' album was so pathetic, but sort of crumbled into biscuit mix instead.
Rotten's cleverness is in understanding the power of understatement and silence – an ironic strength for a man whose pennant of acidity is usually thought of as nailed to the mast of rage. The man is a true star and doesn't have to do a lot to prove it.
Every answer Rotten fields, flings back or broods upon brings forward into the mind the imagined response of some lesser interviewee. How they would squirm and bullshit, ummm and urrr through the massed onslaught of interrogative projectiles, shuffling posteriors and grunting like pigs scuffling for space.
I thought I'd got him when I asked, in ever-so-clever manner, whatever had happened to his much-trumpeted plans to get into video ... as if this would make him really embarrassed.
"It was a load of mouth," he deadpanned. "Sorry."
And smiled smugly. What more was there to say? At other times the man veered distressingly close to sincerity, his demeanour almost assuming the contours of a normal human being. But thankfully eventually broken up by wisecracks.
The proceedings had been started by a grubby little hack from a tit mag, who wanted to know why he'd come back to the UK.
"Well, why not? You lot want me here. I don't mind, believe me," offered Rotten helpfully, before telling the multitude that after three years of New York he'd had enough. But he was "never gonna live here anymore. I think this country's finished. I think we all know that." Indeed.
He was to record in England around Christmas, he informed us.
Did he have any new material? queried a foreign journalist, possibly Japanese, who was to make most of the running for at least ten minutes.
"Of course!" snapped Rotten, his impatience at the dull-wittedness of the entire journalistic 'profession' resounding like a struck bell.
"What do you mean, of course?" ventured the foreign gent – a brave and tenacious man indeed. He seemed to object to the live album consisting of old material.
"Well, what do you expect on a live album?" whined Rotten, raising his voice to the level of insolence. "I mean, that ain't no big deal, that's just a live album. You can't expect, like, an entirely new set of songs that aren't released officially, that's just like cutting your own throat!"
And then, like a tetchy parent scolding a naughty and stupid child: "You've waited this long, a few more years won't do no harm."
All hacks present slightly sniggered.
The foreign hack said that PIL had played 'Anarchy In the U.K.' on their last tour.
"Yeah, we did it in Japan. It went down really well, but then again, I've never ever, like, played Japan in my life, so it's quite relevant that I did it there."
Various minor questions yielded little, until a dreadfully professional freelance insisted on asking why he'd been away from England for so long, which gave our man on the podium a chance to pass the hat round for sympathy as he recounted the tales of police harrassment we'd heard countless times before. The freelance had obviously been fast asleep up until this point, for he insisted on boring us with the same question that some other sod had asked several minutes ago. Rotten was surprisingly patient with the fool.
It was this that gave the signal for the Fleet Street smooth crew to start oiling silver tongues. "John," they would invariably start, as if they were old pals who'd known Rotten since schooldays. They'd then follow it up with some hopelessly banal question which, if it didn't elicit the correct response, could easily be changed before it went into print, the discrepancy to be blamed, if challenged, on the sub-editors.
"John," quoth one unctuously, as if there were just the two of them in conversation, reclining onto leather padded seats in a cocktail lounge in some distant tax haven, "John, is there nothing you've missed about England?"
"Nothing at all, except the pubs."
Whaddya like about New York so much?
"It's a much more healthy atmosphere," plus further droning.
How did you land the acting role?
"Through sheer talent."
Have you got a steady girlfriend?
Are you going to tell me her name?
"No. My favourite colour is blue."
And so on ... One woman had the utter audacity to ask if it was true that the Sex Pistols were going to play at Carnegie Hall. One felt sorry for her. Her news editor had probably made the rumour up only the previous day because the entertainment pages were a bit short.
"It's news to me," mumbled Rotten.
It was at this point that the woman made an even worse mistake. "Well, Malcolm McLaren said ..." she began.
"Oh, come on now, please!" interrupted Rotten, the disgust almost visibly rolling down the side of his mouth in rivulets. "Alright – let's drag it down to the level of silliness. Whatever Malcolm says is bound to be a lie. I mean, the man is a pathological liar. Do me a favour, it goes without saying, almost!"
Had McLaren been in contact with him?
"No, his manager Bernie Rhodes has, about reforming the Sex Pistols. But that's a joke, isn't it really? How you gonna re-form Sid?"
Grins, cackles and other eructations of mirth occurred across the room, as if John had just cracked a real funny.
A Scottish hack demanded to know why he was planning to do a British tour when only a few years ago he'd been critical of bands like the Stones and The Who playing night after night on extensive tours.
"I'd hardly call what I'm doing extensive," replied Rotten. "There are intervals. What I do is a holiday with musical interludes."
"It's still a tour," observed the Scot, a truculent fellow.
"You can call it what you like, mate. It doesn't bother me, I know I'm right."
And with that the issue was over. It's pointless attempting to hurl accusations of hypocrisy at Rotten, as if he were some Judas of punk who has betrayed the believing masses. His revelation that the current line-up of PIL consists, apart from drummer Martin Atkins, of American musicians picked from Holiday Inn-type cabaret bands is typical.
Ostensibly they were chosen because "I wanted to get as far away from trendy hairdos" (the phrase rolled around the mouth for maximum effect) "as I possibly could. The music counts, if you can call it music."
He appeared to be serious, but as always with Rotten there was a touch of ambiguity. It's not that he's always ironic, more that it's impossible to know whether he is being ironic or not, and it's this knowledge that no one can figure out a way to pin him down that adds to his inflated sense of confidence and endearingly humourous arrogance.
Whether he's being serious about PIL at the moment is difficult to say, but it's a safe bet that he must treasure the irony of a group of cabaret musicians performing 'Anarchy In The U.K.' and 'Death Disco'. His is the most un-English of personalities and it's not difficult to see why he took to New York. Even when he's being quiet, Rotten is loud. He even used the phrase 'upfront' at one point.
Was it much fun being a celebrity? someone asked.
"Well, yurrr, of course. This is a giggle, innit? You're stroking my ego and I love it very much. My favourite song is 'It's Hard To Be Humble When You Know You Don't Mean It'."
Had he ever thought of giving any of his time or money to people less fortunate than himself? asked a doubtless overpaid hack who probably spent most of his time heaping slander and monstrous invective on those less fortunate than himself.
"I don't know anyone less fortunate than myself," deadpanned Rotten to honks of hilarity. "Why are you laughing?"
What did he want to go on to in the future?
"My millionaire mansion in the country, I suppose."
No, in a general sense ...
"My general millionaire mansion in the country."
People laughed. The man's cheek and bravado seemed almost astonishingly outlandish. Virtually every hack present would, if given the chance to swap lives, adore the attention Rotten was getting, yet most could never bring themselves to publically admit it. How many stars do? And how many of those who place their narcissism in the market square do it with such a sense of panache and ambiguous humour?
Of course, in pop terms he is virtually an old goat, is duplicating the industry measures of the mid-seventies brontosauri (entry into films and live double album, indeed!), and has just had a hit single with a song of almost cretinous banality.
See him orchestrating the hacks at an event like this though, and it's tempting to forget all that. It's not so much what he says as the way he says it, emphatic delivery alternating with walls of blankness on which the hacks can scribble their own graffiti. A John Lydon/Rotten press conference is probably more entertaining than a live performance by the current PIL will ever be. He should draw the correct conclusions, set a table up on stage at every venue he's due to play, and invite the audience along to fire questions.
And he'd be advised to cease a worrying habit of lapsing into arid areas of discourse, something that threatened occasionally last Wednesday to turn him into yet another ghastly media bore.
Mistake One was rambling on interminably about how the US video channel MTV was opening up the States. Was this supposed to be telling us something new???
Mistake Two consisted in telling us that radio stations in New York actually did their own remixes of records. Did he think we'd be living in caves for the last couple of years???
Mistake Three – well, the first, but who's listening? - was much travelogue about New York, how safe it is if you don't go into the wrong areas. Was he trying to send us all off to sleep???
Mistake Four was acting like a classic paranoid on the subject of John Lennon (another English New Yorker initialled J.L., but let's not get mystical). "There's an oddity about his death, isn't there?" said Rotten quite seriously. "Why did he get out of the car to walk in? Usually the car went into the building. You know, very strange ..." Was he trying to convince us that he was turning into some kind odf complete nut???
Mistake Five was telling us that the Japanese "imitate the West so blatantly," as if this was a blindingly inspired insight. Wow!
But the worst mistake of all was reserved for his opinion of Culture Club.
He didn't really like them, but "Boy George has got a voice, you can't deny that."
The phrase 'Cliché! Cliché!' immediately sprang up in the mind's eye with the devastating impact of a volcanic eruption. Accompanied, of course, by alarm bells and flashing lights. It was at that point that I started to suspect that, despite his youthful appearance, Rotten was beginning to show his age ... Could this be the first signs of a mellowing out?
The suspicion was lent further weight by his rather conservative disdain for the ubiquitous coxcomb quiffs of Britain.
"God, it's like a fashion catwalk out there, innit?" he complained, like a disgusted aunt tutting disapprovingly. "Wacky hairdos, that's the first thing you meet at the airport. Even the baggage attendants."
But so much negativity on the critic's side must eventually amount to nitpicking. Perhaps we should end on a positive note.
Asked for views on the current punks (a term he hates) about town, his answer was as refreshingly dismissive as you would expect.
"Oh yeah, that's sad. I must admit, the leather jacket brigade with the studs, it's a bit au fait (sic), it's as embarrassing as rockabilly or any of that degressive kind of trend. The idea should be to move on, not go backwards."
Suddenly he looked bored.
"Well, that'll do. I've yacked for quite a bit, ha ha. Good night – go home."
The hacks dutifully dispersed. I chuckled quite a lot.
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
© TOM SHEEHAN